Even More English Poetry from the Great War

Futility
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
Mental Cases

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jays that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,- but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

-These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

Wilfred Owen
1893-1918

 

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More English Poetry of the Great War

There was no glory in the industrial slaughter on the Western Front, and soldier poets considered the dismal reality of death and dismemberment.

 

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen 1917

Wilfred Owen 1893-1918

Wilfred Owen
1893-1918

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘They’

The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
‘They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
‘In a just cause: they lead the last attack
‘On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
‘New right to breed an honourable race,
‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’

‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
‘ And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’

Siegfried Sassoon 1918

Siegfried Sassoon 1886-1967

Siegfried Sassoon
1886-1967

Siegfried Sassoon ultimately became acquainted with Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and Bertrand Russell, but he was initially – like many others – very naïve about what he was facing and his early poetry was more traditionally romantic.  His bravery is unquestioned; he earned from his men the nickname “Mad Jack” for his exploits under fire, was awarded the Military Cross in July 1916 and was recommended for the Victoria Cross. But he could not ignore the reality of the trenches and rapidly became disgusted with war.  In July 1917 he refused to return to the front after a convalescence and sent to his commanding officer a letter that was subsequently published and read in Parliament:

Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression (sic) and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

A Soldier's Declaration

A Soldier’s Declaration

This was pretty heavy stuff in the summer of 1917 and was considered treasonous by many and inasmuch as he was an officer a clear act of insubordination – “a willful defiance of military authority.” Presumably reluctant to suffer the embarrassment of court-martialing a war hero, the Under-Secretary of State for War declared Sassoon unfit for service, and he was sent to a hospital for “shell shock.”

Sassoon is echoed after the war by G.K. Chesterton:

 

 Elegy in a Church Courtyard

The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.

But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.

And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.

G.K. Chesterton 1922

G.K. Chesterton 1874-1936

G.K. Chesterton
1874-1936

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                

English Poetry of the Great War

War has always produced poetry, traditionally paeans to courage, honor and self-sacrifice and celebrations of the warrior fighting and perhaps dying nobly and the soldier giving his life for his country.  The Great War initially produced such sentiments, and perhaps the best remembered English language poem of the war is In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, a Canadian physician, who composed the verse on 3 May 1915 in memory of a friend who had died at the Second Battle of Ypres.  (McCrae himself died of influenza in 1918.)  The poem succinctly captures two traditional aspects of war poetry: the honored dead and the sense of mission, now to be carried on by others, that brought them to the grave.

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. 

John McCrae

John McCrae 1914

But the Great War was unlike any previous conflict in history.  Firearms and cannon, the weapons of industry, had been present for centuries, but this was the first truly industrialized war.  Traditionally, the hideous face of war – the disemboweled men, the stinking bodies, the maimed survivors – had generally been ignored in favor of those noble qualities associated with men facing death.  Twentieth century weaponry blew away this romantic mantle.

It was now extremely difficult to ignore the utter horror and to see anything at all heroic in the mega-death of the trench lines. You no longer died on a field of green, exhorting your comrades with your last breath and confident you would be celebrated by them.  Now you died in the mud, choking on the gas or shredded by shrapnel.  Now you were incinerated or blown into nothing or buried alive by the artillery.  Now your comrades might never find you and were in any case likely to soon be casualties themselves.

And by 1916 the seeming pointlessness of it all, the sacrifice of thousands for a few yards of ground in a struggle that appeared to have no end, was wearing away old notions of glory and patriotism. Even Rudyard Kipling, whose son John was killed at Loos in September 1915, had doubts, writing the epitaph “If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

Rudyard Kipling 1916

Rudyard Kipling 1915

At the beginning of the conflict the age-old sentiment of Horace (Odes 3.2.13) was paramount: Dulce et decorum est pro partia mori – Sweet and proper is it to die for the fatherland.  But the ghastly conditions of the trenches soon made a mockery of dulce et decorum, and it became less and less clear how one’s death benefited one’s country, especially when the generals, comfortable in their chateaux, did not seem to be given many opportunities pro patria mori.

Dulce et decorum est...

Dulce et decorum est…

...pro patria mori

…pro patria mori

 

Wilfred Owen, who was killed exactly one week before the war ended, reflected this disillusionment in what is perhaps my favorite poem from the whole bloody affair: Dulce et Decorum est.

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.-
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

 

Such images could hardly be more distant from the maudlin call of In Flanders Fields.  The environment of war may produce noble actions – and great literature – but it is after all impersonal slaughter, and the Great War demonstrated that in a way unmatched before or since.